What Is at Stake for Retirees in Health Care Debate

08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today Medicare celebrates its 44th anniversary. As we honor Medicare's success -- it has reduced senior poverty by two-thirds -- it is also an opportunity for retirees to become more aware of what is at stake for them in health care reform.

The Alliance for Retired Americans, a progressive grassroots advocacy organization, will today hold 30 events around the country to mark Medicare's birthday and advance a pro-retiree agenda for this year's health care debate.

What can the health care bill do to help current and future retirees? Here are a few ideas:

Help Early Retirees. Over five million Americans age 55-64 do not have health insurance. People in this age group should be able to buy-in to Medicare so they can see a doctor more often, especially for preventive care.

Close the Donut Hole. The "donut hole" coverage gap in Medicare Part D means that each year about one in four seniors will spend several months paying full price for their prescriptions while still having to pay their premiums.

Make Long-Term Care Affordable. We must make sure the health care bill includes the CLASS Act by Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Frank Pallone. It would create an insurance program to help middle class families with the cost of long-term care.

Help Continue Retiree Benefits. If we eliminate the tax benefit for employers who provide insurance, I am worried that retiree health care will become yet another broken promise. Many of us sacrificed wage increases over the years in exchange for these benefits.

Hold the Insurance Companies Accountable. A "public plan" option would put pressure on the private insurance companies to keep their premiums and business practices in check. If they are truly doing the best they can, why should they be worried about a little healthy competition?

We are beginning to see misleading and divisive attempts to scare seniors. Representative Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) recently took to the House floor to declare that the House Democrats' health bill, "essentially said to America's seniors: Drop dead." It's time for Washington to move beyond these Karl Rove-style tactics of divide-and-conquer.

Not only do retirees have a lot at stake in the health care debate, but we also worry about our children and grandchildren in these difficult times. Working together, we can create a health care reform plan that helps Americans of all ages.

Barbara J. Easterling was elected president of the Alliance for Retired Americans in February of this year. She was previously the secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America. For more information, visit or call 1-888-633-4435.